The Swiss Alps are not just for skiing, so when the heat is on the hikers get going, sometimes with assistance, writes Jane Jeffries

Arriving at the station, I step out of the train into the late afternoon sun. The alpine village of Zermatt is small, car-free and exactly as I had imagined. Dominated by the mountains, it's picture-perfect and even the flower boxes exploding with colour on the chalets look flawless.

Famous for its winter skiing, Zermatt has 360km of piste, but I've come to do some summer hiking.

The good news is that as it's a ski resort they have countless gondolas, chairlifts and even an underground funicular to get people to the snow. They operate 365 days of the year so when they're not ferrying skiers up the mountains, they're carrying hikers, like me, to great altitudes without having to work up a sweat.

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I check into the hotel and meet my walking buddies. We venture down the road for a catch-up and a drink, and plan our hiking for the next couple of days.

Ski poles have been replaced with walking poles and as the hikers come off the mountains the bars swell with apres-hiking. The din of many languages tells me hikers from all over the world are attracted to Zermatt's alpine terrain.

There are more than 400km of hiking trails radiating in every direction from the township. Some walks can take as little as an hour; others can take several days. The terrain is varied and caters for all levels of fitness from an amble in the meadows to the gruelling Matterhorn.

The trails are well marked with their level of difficulty and time estimates to the destinations. If a track is marked difficult or you want a challenge but aren't confident to go it alone, it's recommended to take one of Zermatt's 70 mountain guides.

Up early the next morning and with clear weather, we decide to tackle the Rothorn Mountain, ascending it in record time.

In 25 minutes we reach an altitude of 3103m — but if we'd walked it would have taken at least four hours. An underground funicular goes as far as Sunnegga, with a further two gondolas to reach the Rothorn viewing platform. Although it's possible to get off at any station, with trails in every direction, we continue to the top so we can see the magnificent valleys, glaciers and the north face, the best face, of the Matterhorn.

It's possible to go even higher up the Rothorn with a 90-minute hike to an altitude of 3415m, the highest peak in Europe reachable without a mountain guide. At the summit, a magnificent 360-degree panoramic view of the Alps — with 38 peaks that are 4000m or taller — makes the journey all the more worthwhile.

This hike is graded difficult, so good hiking shoes and clothing are essential. Due to the close proximity to the mountain lift station, this walk is popular. For a solo experience, catch the first lift up in the morning or the last lift at the end of the day and walk the whole way down, approximately three hours.

The next day we head up the Gornergrat mountain, accessible from Zermatt by the cog railway, the second highest railway in Europe.

The 45-minute trip, with several stops, reaches an altitude of 3089m, where so many of the good hiking trails start but the weather is unseasonably poor so we cut our losses and decide on a long progressive lunch down the mountain.

Starting at the Kulmhotel Gornergrat, the highest hotel in the Swiss Alps, we are pleased to get inside, out of the wind, and learn the original hotel was built two years before the cog railway. I couldn't imagine walking up this mountain.

After a traditional entree of delicious cured meats we catch the train down to the Riffelberg Hotel for more food and finally wash up at the Riffelalp Resort for dessert in the late afternoon. With the clouds lifting we decide to work off some of our lunch and hike the last section of the mountain back to Zermatt.

The view from the top of the Gornergrat encompasses 29 snow-capped peaks and seven glaciers feeding into the Gorner Glacier, the second longest glacier in the Swiss Alps and of course, the Matterhorn in all its glory.

The beautiful mountain has a grisly history. It's been more than 150 years since the Matterhorn was first climbed. On the descent, in 1865, four of the party of seven fell to their deaths. Queen Victoria was outraged at the loss of one of her citizens, Lord Francis Douglas, whose body was never found. She banned British climbers from the mountain but this created only more interest.

She did Zermatt a favour and the town has never looked back. Skiers, hikers and mountain climbers come from all over the world to experience the sensational alpine beauty, the food and hospitality of the Swiss.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: A Swiss Travel Pass is the best way to get around Switzerland. It covers all travel by rail, road and waterways throughout the country. There is no need ever to buy a ticket and reservations are only required on panoramic trips such as the Glacier and Bernina Express.

Further information: For more on Switzerland, hiking in Zermatt and the Swiss Travel Pass, go to myswitzerland.com.